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Looking Back, Part 1: Ed Tech’s Successes During COVID-19

In the first of a two-part series, career school technologist Kipp Bentley examines some important ways that ed tech helped schools navigate the move to remote learning. Part two will focus on new and ongoing challenges.

Student Laptop.jpg
Pixabay
Even as schools returned to full-time, face-to-face instruction, the 2021-22 school year was another tough one for students, educators and parents as we slowly emerged from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But without resorting to what an old boss of mine called “putting lipstick on a pig,” it’s worth recognizing, with the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) now behind us, that K-12 education has made some real progress in how ed tech is perceived and used in schools.

For almost 40 years, ed tech has often been cast by skeptics as a solution looking for a problem, and in many instances this criticism has been justified. There has been too much ineffective instructional software that never lived up to its hype, and too many sexy but expensive digital classroom devices that have done little to advance good instruction.

But the pandemic helped educators cut the wheat from the chaff in ed tech. As a result, teachers invested their time in instructional tools that actually worked to help them conduct the business of teaching and learning during a time of major upheaval.

To be sure, many kids got lost during the pandemic. Insufficient Internet connectivity or devices, lack of adult supervision and follow-through, chronic absenteeism, and an emotional malaise that often led to depression were but a few of the challenges many of our students have faced. And these kids will need ongoing support services to help get their lives back on track.

However, as we close out another school year and reflect on how ed-tech use has advanced like no other time in its history, what have we learned, what important roles will ed tech play in K-12 going forward, and what challenges lie ahead?

During the pandemic I’ve focused on many of these topics in my monthly articles for the Center for Digital Education, and I’ve included links to those below.

WHAT WORKED?



One-to-One Laptop Programs. Schools that made the fastest transition to online learning were those that had already implemented one-to-one programs. Other districts quickly followed, and inexpensive Chromebooks — laptops running Google’s Chrome platform — won the day, to the extent that there was a monthslong ordering backlog from most manufacturers. Continuing one-to-one programs beyond the pandemic won’t be cheap, but schools have hopefully realized the inherent value of every student having an Internet-capable device and will further incorporate them into daily instruction.

Video Conferencing. “Zoom” became a verb during the pandemic when this nascent video conferencing tool was provided free to educators scrambling for ways to connect with their students and to conduct their classes. Now, having gotten over the initial challenges of conducting effective virtual classes, schools will hopefully continue to employ video conferencing tools to meet new and ongoing needs.

Learning Management Systems. Many schools had access to an LMS well before the pandemic. But unless its use was mandated, teachers often opted out. That all changed during the pandemic when teachers realized an LMS was the most effective way to share information, assignments, and digital learning resources with their students. And for these efficiencies alone, one expects that teachers will make LMS use an ongoing part of their practice.

Online Teacher Professional Development. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when schools were closed and forced to go online, districts had to quickly find ways to train their teachers on making the transition to virtual instruction. Enter online professional development. And now that schools have the structures in place to provide professional development virtually, one hopes the parade of teachers driving around their districts to attend after-school training sessions will become a thing of the past.

Parent Communications. The need to communicate important and timely information with families grew exponentially during the pandemic, and schools turned to digital tools to make these connections. Student information systems, learning management systems, websites, text messages, video chats and emails all now play important roles as schools have found new and better ways to keep their families in the loop.

Teachers’ Tech Expertise. For those of us involved in ed tech since its earliest days by working to help teachers advance their tech skills, it was heartening to see how teachers threw themselves into the transition to online instruction. I’ve talked with many district-level ed-tech leaders and they all agree that, as a whole, their teachers’ tech skills have grown considerably over the past two years — some even suggesting by a factor of five.

Effective Instructional Software. In pre-pandemic days, teachers often dabbled in using digital literacy and math applications to support student learning. But with the move to online instruction, elementary teachers especially adopted these tools in new and meaningful ways, and those applications that provided the greatest results got the most use. This level of teacher scrutiny bodes well for their interest and involvement in their schools’ future ed-tech purchases. Teacher voices have too often been muted in such decisions.

District-Level Tech Support Services. Once schools issued laptops to students and moved their classes online, the ongoing support required to get kids connected to the Internet and to keep the devices working fell to district-level tech staff. In most districts this was a new role for techies, but they rose to the occasion. Help-desk support staffing increased to better support families, and districts sought additional ways to get their students connected to the Internet. These included: loaner Wi-Fi hot spots, Wi-Fi-enabled school buses parked in underserved neighborhoods, extending Wi-Fi in district-owned parking lots, and partnering with businesses and community organizations to provide Internet connectivity for families.

K-12’s ed-tech successes during the pandemic have been hard won and not without lots of trial and error. And though much was accomplished within the ed-tech world to meet K-12’s needs during this time, schools’ increased dependence on technology also created some distinct challenges. We’ll look at these new and ongoing demands next month in part two of this discussion.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.